The rot within

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The furore over the millions of shares held by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) chief Tan Sri Azam Baki and the less than transparent manner in which it is being investigated are emblematic of a much deeper malaise – an alarming moral failure at the heart of government. It suggests that our national institutions have lost their moral compass, lost their ability to distinguish between right and wrong, between what is honourable and what is not. 

The allegations against Azam are serious. He has to explain how he came to hold millions of shares in publicly listed companies. His explanation thus far is simply not credible. And if he thinks the ill-considered, even scandalous, endorsement he received from some of his colleagues absolves him, he is sadly mistaken. They might be satisfied with his explanation but the nation is clearly not. 

It may be that Azam has a perfectly reasonable explanation but that is no longer the point. Enough doubt has now been created as to bring into question the integrity of an important national institution and the man who heads it. If he does not resign, he should be forcibly removed from office. In addition, a thorough and impartial investigation should be carried out and, if warranted, charges should be brought against him. Failure to act promptly and transparently would fatally undermine the credibility of an already impaired justice system.

Whatever Azam’s fate may be, the moral rot within our institutions will not be easily resolved. We have an elaborate system of checks and balances in place to ensure the integrity of our governance systems. We appoint apparently respected public servants to helm our agencies. We shower them with awards, titles and positions and yet they betray their office. If we can’t trust them to act with integrity and honour, who can we trust? 

There was a time – the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Dr Ismail, Tun Hussein Onn – when the moral revulsion to even a hint of corruption would have been so great as to drive from office anyone who was suspect. But since then, we have had prime ministers with the ethics of an amoeba. Long established standards of right and wrong gave way to whatever was politically expedient. 

Consider the tepid, half-hearted response of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri and his cabinet. When the prime minister himself is not outraged that something like this has happened on his watch, when he is not moved to speedily condemn and act against an errant official, when ministers bend over backwards to explain away serious allegations, the integrity of the entire government is compromised and its moral authority diminished. 

We have not come to this dark place overnight. The erosion of our moral standards, of our integrity and our honour has been long in the making. For decades, corruption has been covered up, dismissed as an “offset” and even justified on the grounds of some nebulous existential struggle to defend the dominance of a particular ethnic grouping. Cynicism, hypocrisy and avarice replaced character, principles and duty. 

We nurtured the seeds of moral ambiguity; we now must suffer the consequences of what has been called the banality of evil. Corrupt leaders – leaders who have either been convicted or are facing trial – are appointed to high office, invited to officiate at functions or lead election campaigns. Tainted officials can stand in public in their resplendent uniforms full of medal ribbons and honours and vow to lead the fight against corruption. At every level of government, officials have no qualms about demanding bribes. There is no sense of shame anymore, no abhorrence to inequity. We pride ourselves on being God-fearing, but we are so morally diminished now that we cannot even see the error of our ways. We have set the bar so low that even criminals look like saints.

Make no mistake: we face an existential moral crisis. If the men and women tasked with ensuring the integrity of our governance system cannot be relied upon to act with honesty, then we have to conclude that the whole system of governance cannot be trusted to function as it was designed to. This is, perhaps, the ultimate wound that Ketuanan Melayu politics has inflicted upon the nation.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 10th January 2022]